Just over a year ago, ex-Playfish GM John Earner set off with his former co-workers, including former EA and Playfish senior director of product management Simon Hade, and the ex-CTO of Mind Candy Toby Moore to form a new London studio called Space Ape.
Since then, social game outfit Playfish no longer exists as a development studio, while Space Ape has quietly built up its team and raised $4.4 million in funding.
The independent studio is working on a mobile and tablet strategy game in the vein of smash hit Clash of Clans, called Samurai Siege, but hopes to take new strides in the genre made famous by Supercell, while also taking inspiration to its forbearers such as Galaxy Life and Backyard Monsters.
Samurai Siege will be published by Facebook through its new mobile game publishing scheme, in which three developers, also including Outplay and Brainbow, will be marketed to some 800 million monthly mobile users of the social network.
Returning to the world of start-ups
Speaking to Develop, Space Ape CEO John Earner says he was keen to return to the world of start-ups, having acted as producer and product manager during the release of its hit Facebook tycoon title Restaurant City and being involved in the subsequent acquisition of the studio by EA, as he wanted to be closer to the development side, rather than leading a large studio in a wider management role.
“I really enjoyed small teams and alignment of interests. And I felt that more than I ever have in my career at Playfish during the early days when it was 35 of us in the company, 15 of us working on one game, all of us rowing in the boat in the same direction in regards of what we wanted to make and what success looks like,” says Earner.
“I saw what a studio does and how it changes when it goes from a small little start-up to being a big studio within Electronic Arts. I don’t think that one is worse than the other.
“I think rather it was more about personal interests for me. I found it better to be close to products where I was actually a member of the team contributing to the design of the game working with a small number of people, whereas Electronic Arts has the general manager of a 110 person studio worrying about HR type issues all day. It’s just a different role.”
He adds: “I’ve been playing games since I was six or seven. And really enjoyed the years I spent at Playfish making them myself, and enjoyed it less when I was a manager of managers managing games, and so I just felt it was a better fit to go back to start-ups.”
Earner says that his new studio’s debut title Samurai Siege takes cues from games such as Backyard Monsters, Galaxy Life and Supercell’s smash hit Clash of Clans, which earns that studio around $2.4 million a day along with Hay Day, and praises Supercell for making the genre accessible on tablet with a user-friendly user interface.
But straying away from other similar ventures in the tower defence / offence game space, the studio is also influenced by other titles further afield, such as World of Warcraft and Starcraft. Earner feels tablet developers can learn a lot from how Blizzard has built up the social side of WoW and the world in which the characters of StarCraft inhabit.
“I observe when looking at these titles that each is building upon the last,” says Earner.
“Galaxy Life was an improvement on Backyard Monsters, Clash of Clans is a big improvement on Galaxy Life. I think we go a little further afield though when trying to figure out how to make a game that’s even better than that. Most of all we look at World of Warcraft on the social side. Games like Clash of Clans and Galaxy Life introduce clans, or guilds, whatever they call that group, but we viewed it as a V1 implementation, whereas World of Warcraft had all sorts of neat features such as guilds with higher levels for example, and it had battlegrounds.”
Learning from past mistakes
Earner explains the game will launch when it’s ready, but says it is already being tested in a beta consisting of some 10,000 daily users, from which the young UK studio is already generating money from. In fact, says Earner, the developer is more than half way to breaking even as a company, a trend that bodes well for the its future.
He is keen for his new start-up to stay with the strategy genre, having learned harsh lessons from his time at Playfish following the development and release of Restaurant City. He explains that when the London developer released the tycoon management title in 2009, it shot to the top of the Facebook charts and was “the best tycoon game” on the social network.
He says however that following that success, Playfish moved on to something completely different, rather than hone the lessons learned from creating the tycoon game, allowing other developers to step in and saturate the market. The studio still went on to release other popular titles such as The Sims Social and SimCity Social, before effectively closing down earlier this year, with all of its games retired from Facebook.
“I think, again, focus being an important part of a start-up, I’d hate to start something new having learned so much from the game we just made,” he states.
“I’ll give you a good example, when we were at Playfish, we made Restaurant City. It was not the first, but certainly the best tycoon game on Facebook, and it was way ahead of its time. It’s one of the first games that used Flash on Facebook, which sounds crazy, but at the time everybody else was sort of doing PHP games. It had beautiful graphics and it was very interactive, and we made that thing and it was a hit. It quickly became the number two game on Facebook, and we told ourselves ‘mission complete, we’ve cracked this artistic nut’, and we moved on to something totally different.
“And what happened is for the next two years other companies made tycoon games about nightclubs, about baking, about everything. And I think we’re going to learn from that mistake and we’re going to stay in our box for now, which is to say midcore strategy games, and we’ll get better at doing that.”
Adaptability key to survival
Just over six months after the release of Restaurant City and two years after the company was formed, Playfish was acquired by Electronic Arts. The following year Earner himself was appointed as GM of Playfish, a position he held for two years before leaving the studio in January last year.
When asked if Earner sees a similar acquisition path for Space Ape in future should it prove a success, he says that the team’s current vision doesn’t require it to be purchased or for the studio to partner with another company.
He says Space Ape’s current game plan is good for two years – roughly the same period of time from Playfish’s founding to its acquisition by EA – with plans to use experience of employees at the company to slowly grow the company, and gradually split the team into two separate ‘cells’, with one team working on Samurari Siege, and the second developing a new IP. Earner believes it is key for the company to grow in a sustainable fashion, and it won’t be growing rapidly like companies such as Zynga.
But he recognises the industry changes quickly, and things could shift in its ambitions and plans depending on industry trends and new innovations that could shake the status quo.
“We know that the world changes quickly,” says Earner. “We know that for example maybe the current balance of power between android and tablet shifts, or maybe some new gaming device comes out. It’s amazing how quickly tablets usurped Facebook for example, maybe there will be another those type of bets
“So while I don’t think we’re looking to partner with anybody, we think adaptability one of the key survival traits for gaming start-ups. So we’ll do what we need to do to be successful, but I think right now we’re just focused on making one great game, and we think if we focus on making that great game and then making a second one and delighting our users, that good things will come in any form.”